One of the many perks of residing in Huntington Beach, CA (yes, the Surf City famed in song and story) is the Tuesday night street fair that happens on the main drag, just shy of the pier where the mighty Pacific Ocean takes over the horizon.
Live music is always part of the festivities, often in the form of local buskers singing for their supper. It’s usually good listening, but until recently I never thought I’d make it a point to hurry down to Main Street on a Tuesday evening just for the music. That changed dramatically when an excited friend informed me that Tuba Skinny, perhaps the best traditional early jazz band out of New Orleans, would be capping a string of west coast shows with an appearance- live, direct and free -on the downtown Huntington Beach pavement. I’d been delighting in the group’s You Tube videos for some time, and the thought of seeing and hearing them in person had me, well, quite jazzed.
They didn’t disappoint. Tuba Skinny’s lineup was comprised of two resonator guitarists (one of whom doubled on banjo), a clarinetist, a trombonist, a cornet player, a washboard player, a singer who played bass drum when she wasn’t enchanting us with her vintage-sounding vocals and indeed, a sousaphone player.
It was a perfect old-timey sound they captured, one that revels in being completely disconnected from the manufactured slop that characterizes much of today’s popular music. They didn’t even use microphones, instead relying on their skills as a perfectly attuned ensemble to balance the nuances of their punchy, swinging ragtime feel.
Each member got to solo and shine, and from the fluttery fun of the horns to the spot on chops of the rhythm section, they rendered their cover tunes and originals with infectious joy. Looking around at the sizable street crowd they attracted, I could see faces that appeared to be already devotees of this sort of music and thus entranced. Others, perhaps less familiar but curious, were subtly swaying and wearing expressions that seemed to be saying “hey, this stuff is goooood.” The band concluded their performance with a promise to return, and the audience was loudly in favor of their doing so.
There are 10 releases in Tuba Skinny’s discography, averaging one per year since their formation. I can attest to the excellence of two of them.
Nigel’s Dream (2018) charms from the start with a Caribbean-meets-Crescent City cover of Nassau String Band’s “Belamina.” Originals like the title track and “Springtime Strut” swing as if they could have been in the ragtime canon for decades, and the covers, including a sumptuously bluesy take on Tommy Dorsey’s “Some Cold Rainy Day,” are stunning.
2019’s Some Kind-a-Shake is considerably heavier on tunes not composed within the TS ranks and could serve as a primer on how early jazz should be done. Memphis Minnie’s “I’m Going Back Home” features a contrasting vocal tradeoff topping a jaunty arrangement in classic style, “Jubilee Stomp” reminds as to why Duke Ellington should have been granted higher royal rank, “Ballin’ the Jack” weaves brass, reeds and plucked strings into a perfect whole and the entire album testifies to the brilliance of Tuba Skinny and the timeless quality of the music they champion.
The albums are available from tubaskinny.com/music
(Special thanks to Yolande Smith, Robin Rapuzzi and Teresa Orr.)